September 2, 2009
Better than: Retracing the roots of modern alt-country through a flow chart.
When Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman took choice solos on songs like "Lonesome Johnny Blues" and "Friends" on the Bluebird stage Wednesday night, the clear tones and resonant rings sounded like they were straight out of Nashville, like the would fit well on any vintage country album out of Tennessee. Combined with vocalist David Lowery's sardonic lyrics and scratchy vocal tones, not to mention his straightforward rhythm guitar, the band's sound is firmly and undeniably rooted in folk and country traditions. Sure, there's plenty of distorted, in-your-face alternative rock thrown into the mix, but the rural roots are undeniable.
This assessment isn't anything new. From the group's first albums -- 1992's Cracker and 1993's Kerosene Hat -- the sway of the country genre was clear. But watching the group in a live setting, more than ten years after hearing those early records, that simple fact became all the more striking. Specifically, the contemporary explosion of alt-country and folk-punk bands can easily find a parallel in group's work from the early '90s. The added perspective came from a comprehensive set. Cracker's hour-and-a-half performance pulled from the band's very first records, as well as its most recent efforts, and the breadth of the set list showed just how much the band's simple, folksy sound that imprimatur gained its characteristic voice in the early 1990s can be linked to countless current groups.
The performance from Motorhome, who opened the show, was a perfect example. The group's driving, riff-based songs were heavily informed by early American folk structures and current bluegrass phrasings. With rhythms that relied heavily on shuffle beats from the drummer, and accompaniment that included energetic mandolin chords, the group's sound recalled folk and bluegrass roots. But the two guitarists' speedy solos and clear tones bore the inescapable of Hickman's work on those early Cracker albums.
The tribute was surreal at times; the opening band's very sound spelled out the influential role of the main act. Consequently, while Motorhome established a quick rapport with the growing crowd and boasted some impressive solos, they came off as a simple precursor in the end. For all their energy and connection with the audience, the group's scratchy, bluesy vocal tones and folk formulas came off as a bit labored by the end of the set. Still, the opening group's excess would help spotlight the subtle skill of the main act.
Cracker launched into a diverse set that immediately summoned sounds from the group's entire career. Five songs into the group's performance, the outfit played tunes from its newest record, Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me, as well as selections from Cracker and Kerosene Hat. Songs like "Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey," "Movie Star" and "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" flowed together seamlessly, for all the space between their origin. The wide range of tunes continued into the final song of the night, a one-song encore composed of "I Want Everything." Across the length of the performance, the band's energy didn't wane. Frontman Lowery seemed to improvise the set list as the group went along, conferring with his band mates between each song.
The comprehensive feel of the performance also benefited from the continuity of the group's basic formula. Lowery's intonation of sly, sardonic lyrics in dry tones would precede soaring, well-phrased guitar solos from Hickman, which would be followed up by another iteration of the lyrics. The repeated pattern found support in bassist Sal Maida's solid, meandering lines and drummer Frank Funaro's consistent cadences.
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Sure, Cracker's sound followed a preset formula, but the band's skill in pulling it off made each tune sound novel and new. Unlike Motorhome, Lowery's scratch, sinuous lyrics seemed genuine and heartfelt; while Hickman's dense, country-informed solos kept up an alternating, interesting sound. It was an effect that made the group's well-known hits - songs like "Low," "Get Off This," "Euro Trash Girl" and "I Want Everything" - seem fresh and dynamic.
The reliably engaging, albeit basic, formula also made for quite a crowd pleaser. The almost capacity audience, which included enthusiastic fans of all ages, stayed engaged during the entire performance, pumping their fists in the air during key sections and singing along for popular choruses.
The deep impact of Cracker's signature sound, it seems, goes beyond contemporary alt-country bands that took cues from the group's early output. It's a combination of country roots, folk executions and punk attitudes that still stirs responses from a wide range of fans.
Personal Bias: I'm a bigger fan of the band's early work, so the songs from their first three album struck a particular chord with me.
Random Detail: Frontman David Lowery thanked the crowd for making the song "Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me" the band's first single to appear on the Triple A Chart in years.
By the Way: Lowery sported a full beard, which gave him a more grizzled, grandfatherly aesthetic.